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The Palacio Barolo – Inspired by Dante

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One of the best panoramic views in Buenos Aires is from the lighthouse at the top of the Palacio Barolo, on Avenida de Mayo. But as impressive as the view over the Plaza del Congreso and the city might be, expect to be even more amazed by the building itself.

Palacia Barolo

When the Palacio Barolo was completed in 1923, it was the tallest building in South America, with a crowning lighthouse that could be seen from Montevideo, Uruguay. The Italian architect, Mario Palanti, was commissioned to build the palace by an Italian immigrant, Luis Barolo, who had become rich in the fabrics trade. Palanti was a huge fan of Dante, and designed his building to pay tribute to the great author’s Divine Comedy.

The building is precisely 100 meters tall, one meter for each canto in the epic poem. Following Dante’s footsteps, a visitor to Palacio Barolo begins his journey in Hell (the basement and ground floor), moves on through Purgatory (floors 1-14) and ends in Heaven (floors 15-22). The 22 floors equal the number of stanzas of the poem’s verses. Each floor is split into 22 offices. And as in the Divine Comedy, the number nine is repeated throughout the building’s plan. Nine entries to the building represent the nine hierarchies of hell, while nine arches in the central hall stand for hell’s nine circles.

This kind of thing is like crack for me. The palace was inaugurated on Dante’s birthday, and Latin inscriptions throughout the building pay further tribute to the poet. The crowning cupola, inspired by a Hindu temple in India, symbolizes Dante’s union with Beatrice, his perfect woman.

You can join a guided tour, during the afternoon or evening, when the city lights are on. It’s an incredible way to see Buenos Aires from above, and also learn about one of the city’s most unique and amazing buildings.

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May 5, 2011 at 5:00 pm Comments (7)

The National Library

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Modern Architecture in Books

Surely the strangest building in Recoleta is the futuristic Biblioteca Nacional, a wildly modern structure near the staid Museum of Fine Arts.

National Library Argentina

Argentina’s national library has moved around a lot since its inception in 1810. First, it occupied a building in Montserrat’s Manzana de las Luces (Illuminated Block), which has become a cool place to go souvenir shopping. A century later, the library moved into a new building on Calle Mexico, originally designed for the National Lottery. We took a peek inside. It’s now the national center for music, but the guard allowed us into the lobby, and pointed out curious design elements like lottery balls worked into the stair railing. Jorge Luis Borges worked in this building after being appointed director of the library in 1955.

The current building wasn’t opened until 1993, a date that I first assumed must be wrong. The bold, gray Brutalist-style construction feels straight out of the 1960s. And indeed, that’s when the mammoth structure was actually designed. But work suspensions, budget restraints and politics plagued construction for over 30 years. By the time it opened, the audacious new building was already long-since architecturally outmoded.

Still, it’s an impressive block of concrete, and the exterior patio offers a great view over Recoleta. There’s a nice cafe below, and the library offers daily guided visits, often in English. Among the treasures you can see inside the library are a first-edition of Don Quijote and a Gutenberg Bible from 1455.

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May 1, 2011 at 7:24 pm Comments (0)

The MALBA – Museum of Latin American Art

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Modern Art

“Well, this sucks”. We had just arrived in Mataderos, hoping to partake in the fun of its Sunday fair, but rain had forced its cancellation. Moping over a pitcher of Quilmes, we mulled over our options. “We’re on the other side of the city, but how about we catch a bus and go to the MALBA?”

Malba

You don’t really realize how big Buenos Aires is until you take a bus from Mataderos to Palermo. That mother took two hours. But it was an entertaining ride and, by the time we arrived at the MALBA, the sun had come out and was gleaming off the magnificent building. Designed by young Argentine architects from Córdoba and financed with private funds, the MALBA opened its doors in 2001.

Even if there hadn’t been any art inside the MALBA, it would have been fun to wander around. But there was plenty of art. The permanent Constantini collection is comprehensive; it seemed like every major Latin American artist of the last couple centuries was represented. I’m no expert in the field, but recognized many of the names: Frida Kahlo, Xul Solar, Fernando Botero, Diego Rivera. The collection was laid out chronologically, and a couple interesting temporary exhibits rounded things out. The size of the museum was perfect; small enough to see comfortably in an hour.

We finished our afternoon on the terrace of the museum’s cafe. By now, there wasn’t a cloud left in the sky, and the canceled Feria de Mataderos and our marathon bus ride seemed like distant memories. Amazing how a good museum can so quickly take your mind off any troubles. MALBA is one of the few must-see museums in Buenos Aires.

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April 30, 2011 at 10:18 pm Comments (3)

Palacio Paz – A Private Home Fit for Kings

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The most expensive Hotel in Buenos Aires

Fleeing the yellow fever which was devastating the city’s southern barrios at the beginning of the 20th century, Buenos Aires’ most wealthy families established fabulous residences around Retiro’s Plaza San Martín. None were more extravagant than the Palacio Paz.

Dome

José Camilio Paz was the founder of La Prensa, the city’s most influential newspaper, and a man whose success brought him to the forefront of Porteño society. He was Argentina’s ambassador to France, and harbored aspirations to the presidency. Clearly, he regarded himself as a man of much import, and so ordered the construction of an outrageous private home in the heart of the city.

Like many Argentinians of his day, Paz was obsessed with Europe, and returned to France to choose an architect and materials. Construction on the palace stretched from 1901 to 1914, but Paz died in 1912 without ever seeing the completed work. But his widow and family happily moved in, and enjoyed a life of absolute splendor.

As we were taking the tour, our guide stressed that the Palacio Paz was for a family of nine. Yet, regardless of how many times I heard that, I couldn’t wrap my mind around the idea. This was a place fit for royalty. At four stories and 12,000 square meters of space, the sheer size of it is incredible. The nine family members had sixty servants at their disposal. There are seven elevators. Seven.

Our tour started in the reception area, moved into the ball room, then a long gallery, decked out with wooden benches and velvet walls. We continued through the dining room of honor, where each guest had his own personal waiter, the smoking room, the ladies’ room, and the music room. At this point I was starting to lose my orientation; every room was just as gorgeous as the last. But on we marched, through the waiting room, to the music room and then into a round room which shattered my conceptions of what kind of things private wealth could actually purchase.

This was the formal reception room, meant to leave guests astonished, and it accomplishes its task handily. A perfectly circular room over 21 meters in height with statues, paintings, marbled columns and a ceiling fresco dedicated to Louis XIV, the Sun King. From here, we were led into the garden, and had the chance to admire the iron wrought sun room on the palace’s back side.

After the Paz family moved on, the palace was purchased by the Círculo Militar for private functions and, except for the unfortunate addition of a sporting area which replaced the garage and stables, it’s survived almost completely intact into the modern day. The tour costs $40 (US$10) per person, and is a wonderful chance to see how magnificently rich porteños of the early 20th century were able to live.

Palacio Paz
Av. Santa Fe, 750
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April 27, 2011 at 10:44 pm Comments (2)

Puerto Madero

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The Architecture of Calatrava

Buenos Aires’ trendiest residential neighborhood is probably its most bizarre. Even though it’s physically close to the historic center, Puerto Madero almost feels like a completely different city.

Puerto Madero

The narrow port for which the neighborhood is named opened in 1882 to help serve Buenos Aires’ shipping businesses. But it was in use for only sixteen years. Before construction even completed, Puerto Madero had been rendered obsolete by the sheer size of the newer, larger barges. For most of the 20th century, the warehouses sat unused and the area around Puerto Madero was abandoned to urban rot.

But that’s changed. About ten years ago, a concentrated effort was made to modernize and clean up one of the city’s best-located and most-neglected neighborhoods. With its location along the Rio de Plata, and the ecological reserve of the Costanera Sur, it’s amazing that Buenos Aires took so long to make proper use of Puerto Madero. Wealthy porteños, both young professionals and retirees, have moved there en masse, and property values have shot through the roof. To accommodate the new residents, a number of restaurants have opened up along the old port, which itself has become a place of touristic interest.

We’re in Puerto Madero constantly, usually for jogging, but also taking advantage of the cheap and modern Cinemark theater. There’s still a lot of room for improvement in Puerto Madero — the newness of the buildings and shops is too apparent, and the large, expensive restaurants are almost always empty. A stroll through the neighborhood can be a surreal experience; where the nearby streets of Monserrat are noisy, dirty and gloriously alive, Puerto Madero is clean, quiet and desolate.

Still, walking along the old port as the sun behind the city, its rays reflecting off the water and giant glass buildings, is one of the more pleasant ways to spend an evening in Buenos Aires. We’ve gone to bars along the port for happy hour, and perhaps there are some treasures hidden in Puerto Madero that we haven’t discovered… does anyone have a suggestion?

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April 27, 2011 at 8:43 pm Comment (1)

The Barfy Burger and Other Random Pictures

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Pictures were taken with this camera

Barfy Burger

“Well, I just don’t know why our burger brand don’t seem to be catching on English-speaking countries!” Ha… I have to confess, I was tempted to try one! Buenos Aires is full of fun little oddities, some of which I hope to capture in my photography. Enjoy another set of Pukey Pictures!

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April 4, 2011 at 5:12 pm Comments (4)

Retiro Train Station

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Buenos Aires Style: Exteriors, Interiors, Details

The most important train station in Buenos Aires in the Estación Retiro, found within walking distance of Plaza San Martín. Three train lines converge here, taking passengers to destinations like Tigre, Tucumán and Córdoba.

Estacion Retiro

Buenos Aires in the early 20th century must have been the world’s most exciting city, awash in wealth and optimism. All over town, buildings of astounding elegance were sprouting up, from the Teatro Colón to the Palacio Paz, and in 1909, construction began on a train station in Retiro. With French stylings and a steel frame built in Liverpool, the Estación Retiro was representative of Buenos Aires’ European obsession. The iron roof was the largest of its kind and, upon completion, the station was considered the world’s most beautiful.

The northern side of Estación Retiro is a serious no-go zone. For some reason, the city’s most infamous shantytowns, its villas miserías have risen up here. We’ve been tempted to explore them, some amazing and heartbreaking photographs are sure to be had, but every porteño we’ve floated the idea by has suggested, and even made us promise, that we would stay away.

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March 25, 2011 at 12:47 pm Comments (7)

A Sneaky Exploration of the Teatro San Martín

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On Avenida Corrientes, one of Argentina’s most important theaters hides behind an inauspicious 1960s glass facade. If you weren’t looking for it, you’d probably walk past by the Teatro San Martín without giving it a second glance.

Vida Sueño

But an enormous artistic complex lurks inside. The Teatro San Martín comprises three stages, a cultural center with art exhibits and workshops, a small cinema and a gorgeous salon. A huge variety of performances takes place every week, from theater and dance, to concerts, movies and children’s activities. When we visited, the hallways were being used for a photo exhibit called “24 Hours in Buenos Aires”. The lobby contains both a bookstore and a café. In short, there’s art everywhere.

After finishing up with the photo exhibit, we continued up a flight of stairs to a large salon outfitted with retro furniture. There weren’t any signs saying we couldn’t go up there, but we felt like intruders, since the room was devoid of any other life. No visitors, no guards, no signs of any sort. We lounged on the plush couches for a bit, just because they were there, then took our intrusion game up a notch. The closed door down the hallway wasn’t locked, and after opening it, we found ourselves alone in the gorgeous Sala Martín Coronado, the largest of the Teatro’s three stages.

Last night, we returned to the Sala under more appropriate circumstances: to watch La Vida Es Sueño, by Pedro Calderon De La Barca, one of the most important works of Spanish-language theater. It was an incredible show, and our attention was held rapt throughout, despite understanding approximately 6% of the verse. Murder, attempted rape, deception, naked old kings and a lot of shouting in rhyme. At just $50 (US$12), it was a great bargain for an entertaining night.

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March 12, 2011 at 11:55 pm Comment (1)

Recoleta Cemetery

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Other great cemeteries we have visited: Bonaventure and Laurel Grove

One of Buenos Aires’ most beautiful neighborhoods is also one of its most exclusive. They won’t let just anyone move in, so if you’re looking for a new home here, there are a couple of inflexible prerequisites: you must be rich, and you must be dead. Being famous helps.

Recoleta

One of the world’s most gorgeous cemeteries, Recoleta Cemetery is the final resting place of the city’s richest and most powerful citizens, and a wonderful spot for us plebes to do some gawking. They’re serious about that admittance policy. Not many are “good enough” for Recoleta. My politics are strongly populist, and the notion of a cemetery which exclusively houses the wealthy would normally disgust me, but in this case, I’m willing to disregard my inner socialist. Even in death, rich people are eager to show each other up, and the results of the rampant egotism are astonishing: every crypt is more beautiful, more ostentatious than the next.

The cemetery occupies an enormous amount of space and truly is a little city unto itself. It’s even organized into blocks. Strolling aimlessly about its streets is an overwhelming visual experience. Cypress trees sprouting up around mausoleums, feral cats slinking noiselessly across cracked tombs, sunlight filtered through stained glass throwing colorful shadows upon the ground. Make sure to have your camera with you.

Irigoyen

Established in 1822, Recoleta was the first public cemetery in Buenos Aires, without any kind of preferential policies. In fact, one of its first inhabitants was a young freed slave by the name of Juan Benito. But in the 1870s, a yellow fever epidemic drove the city’s elite out of the city center and into the neighborhood of Recoleta. They wasted no time in claiming the cemetery as their own.

Many of Argentina’s presidents are buried within its walls, but the cemetery’s most famous resident is undoubtedly Eva Peron. Surprisingly, her tomb is difficult to find and not nearly as impressive as those which surround it. Members of the oligarchy had fought for years against her being buried here, since she worked so hard to destroy their grip on power, but they eventually relented. Juan Perón, though, was a different story. He’s buried in the Chacarita Cemetery, west of Palermo.

Entrance is free, and it’s one of the absolutely must-see attractions for any visit to Buenos Aires. Recoleta is easily the most amazing cemetery I’ve ever been to.

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February 28, 2011 at 11:43 pm Comments (9)

The Metropolitan Cathedral

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A visit to the Cathedral in Oviedo, Spain

On one of our first days in Buenos Aires, we approached the dour neo-classical building on the northwest corner of the Plaza de Mayo without having any idea what it could be. My best guess was a courthouse, with those massive stone columns that evoke the Parthenon, and I was surprised to discover a cathedral behind the facade.

Metropolitan Cathedral

The Metropolitan Cathedral has a history nearly as old as the city itself. The original wooden church was constructed in 1580, at the same time Juan de Garay founded Buenos Aires. Since then, it’s collapsed or been torn down seven times. The version recognizable today wasn’t finished until the late 19th century.

The artwork throughout the cathedral is beautiful, particularly the ceiling frescoes and the tiled mosaics on the floor. There are some pieces which date from colonial times, such as a 1670s wooden sculpture of the crucifixion. But most impressive is General José de San Martín’s mausoleum. Two guards stand vigilant, protecting the great general’s coffin which sits atop a large column in the center of the room. Martín is credited with the liberation of Argentina, Chile and Peru from Spain, and statues representing those three nations surround his memorial.

Signs at the cathedral’s entrance prohibit photography, but that rule is neither regarded nor enforced. Everyone and their mother was taking pictures; flashes going off all over the place. Although Argentinians identify almost exclusively as Catholic, the society is basically secular. Perhaps that’s why the Metropolitan Cathedral, where tourists greatly outnumber the faithful, feels more like an amusement park than the country’s most important place of worship.

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Learn about Evita

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February 21, 2011 at 10:10 pm Comments (3)

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The Palacio Barolo - Inspired by Dante
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